Few people know that lye is one of the oldest chemicals used by humans. Even fewer know that lye is made by trickling water through wood ashes. Repeated circulations of the fluid through the ashes make a stronger lye solution. Most frontier settlers built ashbins and collected fireplace and wood stove ashes to make lye for soap and other uses.
In fact, the handy and potent chemical was used for a variety of important farm tasks. For example, hair can be removed from animal hides by sprinkling a strong lye solution on the hair side and rolling the hide up for a few days. After unrolling, the hair is easily scraped from the surface. The outer skin on a corn kernel can be removed with a lye solution to make hominy. A mild lye solution added to soaked grain every few months can eliminate stomach worms in hogs. Seeds for planting can be protected from birds and insects by soaking them in a mild lye solution.
My only experience using lye was helping my mother and Grandma Trew make soap. A recent column I wrote described how to render lard, and I received several requests to write about lye soap making, because the two processes seemed similar.
There are two kinds of lye soap, as I remember. One is a strong, yellow soap used for laundry, and the other is a mild, white soap best for bathing. Laundry soap was made with the cooking greases from bacon and ham, as well as any rancid lard left over from the last rendering. Because farm clothes got especially dirty, laundry soap usually contained a stronger lye solution than bath soap. Since powdered or liquid detergents were unheard of, the large soap bars were shaved into the laundry pot with a pocketknife.
Lye soap for bathing was made with fresh, clean lard, a milder lye solution and something good smelling like cloves, cinnamon, lemon or vanilla. Mother poured a big bottle of old-time Jergen's lotion into her soap pot. When the soap solidified, we cut small bars for use at the sink, tub and wash pan.
Remember, lye is a caustic chemical and poisonous to living tissue when used in strong solutions. Lye will also rust most metals like pots, spoons, ladles and tin canisters. Therefore, vessels used to make lye soap weren't used for other purposes unless thoroughly cleaned. All spoons, paddles and ladles were made of wood, and only porcelain-coated vessels or crocks could be used to store lye soap. As a boy, I wrapped the finished soap bars in brown paper before storage.
A good lye soap recipe is found in the Village Improvement Program publication entitled The Deutch Cookbook from Darrouzett, Texas. The ingredients consist of 1 can of lye, 3 pints of cold water, 3 pints of strained, melted lard, 1/2 cup of ammonia or bleach and 1 1/2 teaspoons of borax (this may be deleted). Dissolve the lye in cool water, then pour in warm lard. Add bleach and borax, then stir until the solution becomes thick like honey. Pour into pans and set overnight to harden. Cut into whatever sized bars needed. Remember, the soap may take longer to harden in high humidity. FC
- Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org